The 15th BRICS summit in Johannesburg from August 22 to 24 is being held in the background of many international developments: The conflict in Ukraine, its impact on the Global South, the collapse of ties between the West and Russia, Western sanctions on Russia that have disrupted ties of third countries with it, the sharp deterioration of US ties with China, the global trading system under stress with the weakening of the WTO and de-globalisation trends that include exploring more reliable and trustworthy supply chains, and so on, notes Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian Foreign Secretary, India’s Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia.
South Africa has made the Johannesburg summit a monumental affair by inviting 67 leaders from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Caribbean. This is far beyond what other BRICS countries have done under their Presidencies by way of special invitees.
South Africa is clearly seeking a leadership role in the Global South, which is also reflected in its President leading an African delegation on a peace mission to Ukraine and Russia in June to explore steps to end the ongoing conflict. President Ramaphosa also attended the Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg in July 2023.
In the context of moves to expand the membership of BRICS and what that might mean in terms of altering geopolitical balances in the international system by drawing countries into a grouping dominated by China and Russia, when both these countries are now being treated as adversaries of the West, the deliberations and the outcomes of the Johannesburg summit will be watched closely in the US and Europe.
In any case, inviting such a large number of countries to the summit increases the political resonance of BRICS internationally.
According to the South African government, 22 countries have already formally applied for BRICS membership. This includes Saudi Arabia, UAE, Algeria, Egypt, Bahrain, Indonesia, Argentina, Iran, Turkey, Mexico, Nigeria, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Kazakhstan, etc. An equal number of countries seem to have informally expressed interest in membership. The very fact of these applications shows that many countries now want to join bodies that are not dominated by the West, seek to balance their foreign relations and increase their margins of manoeuvre internationally.
A consensus must be built within BRICS on expansion. The criteria for it must be decided. The original BRIC group consisted of emerging economies that were slated to play an increasingly important role in global economic growth, provide global investment opportunities etc.
Russia, which took the lead to form BRIC, had a more geopolitical vision, transcending economics, and trade. It looked at BRIC as a building block of a more multipolar world.
Russia as a Eurasian power, China and India as the biggest Asian powers, and Brazil as the biggest Latin American power, would in its view provide the fulcrum for this objective. South Africa was later added at China’s instance to include a major African country and give BRICS a wider continental dimension, even though South Africa’s economic parameters were relatively much weaker.
With the interdependencies created by globalisation, the volume of ties that major non-Western countries have with the West, the need to address many of the challenges faced by the global community as a whole — both the West and the non-West — for which close international cooperation is required, the purpose of expanded BRICS cannot therefore realistically be confrontational.
A forum beyond the G7 or even the G20 which is still dominated by the West, such as an expanded BRICS forum which can reflect independently on global issues of cross-cutting concern and help shape collective decisions in the interest of international peace and stability, can potentially play a constructive role.
The outcome of the BRICS summit in South Africa would be important, Kanwal Sibal stresses.